What is commercial copywriting?

fountain pen with ink bottleThis is a question I get asked a lot when I’m out networking and the simple answer is ‘writing to persuade people to take action’.  However, there is a bit more to it than that.

  • Accurate English – grammar, spelling and punctuation – is essential, but isn’t enough on its own.
  • A journalism qualification or experience adds plenty of useful skills that can be transferred, but doesn’t cover everything.
  • An understanding of marketing is critical, but won’t make a copywriter in isolation.
  • A knowledge of business across a range of industries is important, particularly for a writer who plans to freelance or work for an agency.
  • First class communication skills – spoken as well as written – are invaluable.
  • Sales skills and the understanding of how a sale is constructed are also essential.

So a good copywriter can write excellent English, to engage the audience, that has been researched and understood; he/she knows how to present a business effectively and can ask the right questions to establish the key benefits of any business then present them in writing in a way that creates ‘want’ in the reader.

There are are many copywriters who can tick some of the boxes, but few who really manage to tick every one of these.

Commercial copy has to connect powerfully with the reader to get them to take action; articles in newspapers and magazines are usually to inform or to entertain.  Of course, some of them engage the reader emotionally too, but they’re not usually selling anything in particular.  In fact, most publications, defend their right to be impartial and write the facts as they see them.

Writing commercial copy is all about creating an image that the reader can relate to – that’s why a really good copywriter uses ‘you’ much, much more than ‘we’.  The aim is to get the reader to imagine themselves in the situation where they have the product or are experiencing the service that they’re reading about.

Of course, we are all potential customers and we’re not idiots.  We know that a commercial website or marketing flyer is going to try and present their products or services in a way that attracts us, but, if we’re already visiting that website or looking at that brochure or picking up that flyer that means we have an interest.  Now it’s just a matter of saying the things that get us to say ‘I want this – now; and I want THIS one!’

That’s no easy task, but that’s what a commercial copywriter sets out to do.

Anyone can write, but not everyone can do that.

Who is in your target audience?

TargetOne of the critical questions I ask my clients before I start gathering information is ‘Who is your target audience?’.  I wish I could say that they are all completely clear on the answer to that question, but many aren’t and it makes my job virtually impossible if I don’t know who I’m writing for.

Too many people answer ‘Anyone who wants what I’ve got’.  It’s impossible to get to know ‘Anyone’ well enough to know what matters to them and to craft a message that will connect with them.

Some people have identified an industry e.g. architects, but then they’ll add a whole lot more – surveyors, building contractors, property developers, etc. etc.  The broader the field the harder it is to create a message that will hit the ‘hot button’ for everyone.  That’s because each one of those groups of people will have different wants and needs; they have a different emotional trigger that connects with them – and makes them want to connect with you.

I know that it’s not good business to be only in a single niche, but, if you have several different target audiences, then you will need several different messages to reach each one effectively.  This will definitely mean separate flyers and email campaigns for each target group.  Targeting people on your website is more challenging as your home page will need to give all your niches an idea of what you can do for them to persuade them to explore the page that is targeted only on their wants and needs.

Having a separate website for each niche can work – there’s nothing wrong with linking these together.  It does allow you to really hone your message so your target audience  really get it.

How well do you know your target audience?  What is important to them and which of their problems can you solve?

Making sure your message gets through

I’m back on my soapbox about the importance of not only delivering the message that your potential client will respond to, but also presenting it in a way that makes it easy for them to see and process.

After looking at many websites that start with ‘Welcome to our website’ or, worse still, no headline in any prominent position, I wonder what is going on in the heads of some web designers and site owners.  When we’re all so busy there are just a few seconds (not many) before the site visitor gives up, hits the back button and looks at another option on the list.

This also applies to hard copy documents, but there is much more to think about, including how people handle different types of document.

Let’s start with getting the message right

You need to be clear about what your website visitor wants – not what you want to tell them.  If you’re not sure ask a few existing clients what they would be looking for if they were trying to find a new supplier; what is really important to them?

Once you have this information you can use it to deliver the right message.

Remember every page needs a headline, you never know where people will land.  If they have searched for a particular product or service they may arrive on the page that features that, not on the home page.

Focus on ‘you’ (your visitor), not ‘we’ (your company) and be sure to address the ‘what’s in it for me’ throughout the copy.

Now the presentation

Key things to remember:

  • One dominant headline, not several confusing different messages in many boxes, banners and sidebars competing for attention.  It doesn’t mean you can’t have boxes and sidebars, it just means that one headline has to stand out from the rest.
  • Fast moving images can irritate.  If moving images are important ensure they change gently and subtly so they don’t distract your reader when they’re trying to read the content.
  • All capitals are harder to read, stick to sentence case for headlines – as big and bold as necessary.  Never use capitals for main copy.
  • Dark backgrounds make it harder to read the main copy.  Big bold headlines are fine, but light writing on a dark background creates dazzle and makes it much harder for people to actually take on board the message.
  • Justified text encourages people to get lost in paragraphs as there is no shape for the eye to ‘bookmark’ and results in people rereading the same line or skipping a line.  It can also produce ugly gaps between words.
  • Stick to a clean sans serif font (e.g. Verdana, Arial, Tahoma), screen resolution makes this much easier to read.  Serif fonts like Times, Garamond and Palatino tend to look a bit fuzzy making reading slower.
  • Don’t use more than one column of text for your message – people won’t scroll back up to the next column and you never know where the page is going to break with so many different screen sizes today.

Don’t assume that a web designer will know all this – it’s not generally taught as part of their training.  This is a web designer’s site that breaks most of the above ‘rules’!

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